In La Mirada Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 1149, the Second District Court of Appeal held that attorneys’ fees were properly awarded per California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 (Section 1021.5) where the challengers were successful in conferring a significant benefit in the public interest—invalidating six of eight specific plan variances approved for a single project.
Under Section 1021.5, a trial court, at its discretion, may award attorneys’ fees to a successful party that acts as the catalyst that motivates a public agency to alter its behavior. A successful party confers a significant benefit on the general public if it enforces an important right affecting the public interest, and that enforcement benefits a large number of individuals. Further, a successful party is not precluded from seeking attorneys’ fees if, after obtaining a judgment that a project violates the zoning laws then in existence, a city later changes the zoning laws.
The City of Los Angeles (City) approved a Target Superstore Project, including eight variances from the applicable specific plan. These variances excused the Project from the specific plan’s height restrictions, many design element requirements, parking space limits, delivery time restrictions, and home delivery requirements. La Mirada Neighborhood Association (La Mirada), a community association, filed suit.
The trial court partially granted and partially denied La Mirada’s writ petition; six of the eight special plan variances were found invalid because they were not supported by substantial evidence. Only the parking variance and home delivery variance were upheld. The judgment also authorized La Mirada to seek attorneys’ fees. La Mirada moved for attorneys’ fees pursuant to Section 1021.5, the “private attorney general doctrine.” The trial court granted $793,817.50 to La Mirada for success in litigating the matter and conferring a significant benefit on the City’s residents. Target and the City appealed this award.
The Appellate Court opined that, while generally parties pay their own attorneys’ fees, Section 1021.5 is an exception to this rule to encourage parties to “pursue meritorious public interest litigation vindicating important rights and benefitting a broad swath of citizens.” Therefore, a party recovering attorneys’ fees must establish “(1) it is a successful party in an action, (2) the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, (3) the action has conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons, and (4) an award of attorney fees is appropriate in light of the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity.”
The Court first established that La Mirada is a “successful party.” Under Section 1021.5, a successful party is one that “achieves its objectives.” Contrary to Target’s claim, a party need not receive a final judgement in a case, need not be successful on all claims, and need not personally benefit from a judgement. Instead, the Court stated, the definition is broad and measured by “the impact of the action.” Essentially, a party is successful where the lawsuit serves as a “catalyst that motivate[s] the defendant to alter its behavior.” Here, La Mirada was successful where six of the eight variances were set aside and the lawsuit motivated the City to amend the special plan to allow the Target Superstore. The lawsuit “directly prompt[ed] a legislative fix;” La Miranda was a successful party.
The Court then established that La Mirada conferred a significant benefit on the public in requiring the City to adhere to the law. This determination is a function of “(1) the significance of the benefit, and (2) the size of the class receiving [the] benefit.” The Court stated that “a benefit need not be monetary to be significant.” Rather, a party may secure a nonpecuniary benefit to the public, including the benefit of the proper enforcement of the law, if it can “show that the law being enforced furthers a significant policy.” Here, the Court found that the standard was clearly met because La Mirada’s lawsuit resulted in (1) the City adhering to legal requirements for granting variances, which the California Supreme Court has consistently recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of zoning laws as an important public policy, and (2) benefited a large group of individuals, as all residents of the City “benefit from the trial court’s ruling that holds the City Council’s zoning decisions to the letter and spirit of the Municipal Code.”
Target claimed that La Mirada was not successful because the validity of the Project under the subsequently-amended specific plan is still pending. Target claimed that La Mirada’s objective was to stop the Project from ever being built and that the City may still prevail in obtaining a ruling that the Project is valid under the new zoning law. The Court found that this argument was both factually inaccurate and legally untenable. First, the Court explained that La Mirada’s stated goal in filing the writ petition was to set aside and invalidate the eight variances granted by the City and to enjoin further construction of the Project contingent on the validity of the eight variances. The Court stated that “[a]t no point did [La Mirada] allege that their writ petitions were aimed at stopping the Project forevermore.”
Secondly, the Court explained that success under Section 1021.5 “does not require a showing that the successful party put the entire dispute to rest for once and all.” In fact, the code authorizes “interim attorney fee awards” for successes conferring significant benefits before a matter is finalized. In this case, the Court explained that, since the trial court’s judgment that the specific plan variances were invalid was left intact after the first appeal, the judgment is more final than the typical interim ruling. It can be considered “interim only against the backdrop of the broader litigation between the parties, which continues only because the City amended the zoning laws and thereby promoted a new round of petitions challenging the Project” during this appeal. Further, the Court explained, a Court may only grant writ relief after applying the law in existence at the time of its decision. Target’s argument, on the other hand, would require parties to succeed under the law in existence at time and “as it might be amended in the future.” The Court, however, declined “to define success as requiring one to achieve the impossible.”
The Court held the attorneys’ fee award to La Mirada did not demonstrate an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.
A party is “successful” for the purposes of being granted an award of attorney’s fees under the private attorney general doctrine where it achieves at least a portion of the stated goals of bringing the petition.